At this time of year, using a parasitic plant as an excuse — and in spite of Covid19 transmission danger — many kisses will be given. The plant in question is of course the mistletoe and people buy sprigs or clumps of it to hang in strategic places to trap the unwary, ambushing them into receiving the sign of affection (or lust). Although the plant is native across Europe it is not so to Ireland1, though it can be found growing in widely-separated places here, believed to be the result of “garden escapes” but could also have been imported with saplings (for example of apple varieties).
IN FOLKLORE AND MYTHOLOGY
According to Wikipedia, the whole kissing-under-mistletoes custom was popularised by courting couples among servants of middle and upper classes during the reign of the English Queen Victoria. How that arose is not explained but there has been an association of the berries with fertility since antiquity, possibly through sympathetic magic, since the berries were thought to resemble sperm. Indeed, one of its medicinal uses historically has been in treatment of infertility, along with arthritis, high blood pressure and epilepsy. To the Celts, mistletoe represented the semen of Taranis, their god of thunder2, while the Ancient Greeks referred to mistletoe as “oak sperm”.
Modern medicine does not ascribe scientific value to treatments with misteltoe and instead points to the toxicity of the plants, with Tyramine, the active agent, causing blurred vision, diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting and, more rarely, seizures, hypertension and even cardiac arrest. The toxic agent is maximally concentrated in the fruits and leaves. Fatalities among adult humans are rare but children and pets are more vulnerable.
In Ancient Rome it was customary to attach a sprig of the plant above the door to bring love and peace to the household while elsewhere it has also been seen as protection against evil spirits. What of the common belief that it was ingested by the druids, as in a “ceremony of the oak and mistletoe” with sacrifice of white bulls? We have only Pliny as an ancient source of that alleged ceremony and historians seem to dislike relying on him, seeing him as a historian who liked to please the patricians in Rome with his descriptions. Wiki comments: “Evidence taken from bog bodies makes the Celtic use of mistletoe seem medicinal rather than ritual. It is possible that mistletoe was originally associated with human sacrifice and only became associated with the white bull after the Romans banned individual human sacrifices.”3
Is mistletoe harmful to trees? Although it is not in the long-term interests of a parasite to kill its host, some species do appear to be taking over their host bush or tree but we don’t seem to have come to that pass in Ireland and indeed may never do so. Wikipedia notes a number of studies that have ascribed ecological importance to some species, as a food source, nesting material and even encouraging the spread of juniper through birds attending parasitised juniper trees and eating the mistletoe and juniper berries together, to pass through the gut unharmed and be deposited elsewhere.4
THE PLANT SPREADING IN IRELAND?
“The word ‘mistletoe’ derives from the older form ‘mistle’ adding the Old English word tān (twig). ‘Mistle’ is common Germanic (Old High German mistil, Middle High German mistel, Old English mistel, Old Norse mistil). Further etymology is uncertain, but may be related to the Germanic base for ‘mash’.”5 Its family Solanthacea (agreed in 2003) includes about 1,000 species in 43 genera. Many have reported traditional and cultural uses, including as medicine.6
In Ireland, apart from its scientific name Viscum alba, the perennial plant has a number of names: Sú Dara, Uile Íce, Drua-Lus and it typically roots itself in the bark of trees such as Hawthorn, Lime, Apple, Poplar and Willow but according to its Wikipedia entry, “successfully parasitizes more than 200 tree and shrub species” (though probably much less in Ireland). Once established its roots tap its host’s sap for water and nutrients but it also carries out photosynthesis, processing sunshine through its fleshy leaves — which has it classified as a hemiparasite, ie. it does part of its own work. The tree also gives it elevation where it can catch the sun’s rays without too much obstruction.
A distribution map with the Wildflowers of Ireland entry shows it widespread throughout England and Wales and localised in Scotland and Ireland, possibly through the deforestation in those nations. Although imported deliberately or accidentally to Ireland and then escaping beyond its source, once established it can be be spread, largely probably by birds.
The Mistle Thrush (Smólach Mór/ Turdus viscivorus) is particularly associated with the plant by name and the bird is said to include the berries in its winter diet when invertebrate animals, its preferred food the rest of the year, are rarely about7. The bird is described as squeezing the berries in its beak, ejecting the seeds sideways and, to clean its beak, wiping it against a tree trunk. The seeds, being covered with sticky liquid adhere to the tree bark and the liquid hardens, maintaining a strong grip.
The parasitic plant has long been in evidence in the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin and to a lesser extent in the adjacent Glasnevin Cemetery and I wondered at times why it (along with the grey squirrels) did not make its way into Griffiths Park, only minutes away on foot and connected by the Tolka River. However, walking through that park the other day, I did indeed spy the tell-tale clump high up in a tree.
7While the Wikipedia entry on the bird states that it eats mistletoe berries along with those of ivy and yew (all poisonous to humans), the Birdwatch Ireland web page states only that it eats berries in winter, without specifying which ones.
7While the Wikipedia entry on the bird states that it eats mistletoe berries along with those of ivy and yew (all poisonous to humans), the Birdwatch Ireland web page states only that it eats berries in winter, without specifying which ones.
After repeated claims from from a woman speaking through a loudhailer that their right-wing rally at the GPO was “peaceful” and would “not respond to your violence” (this addressed to their peaceful opponents on the other side of the road!), right-wingers crossed the road a number of times to insult and threaten their opponents, eventually assaulting one well-known Republican who defended himself vigorously. Gardaí separated assailant and victim but declined to take any action against the fascist.
BACKGROUND, BUILD-UP AND ATTACK
The above took place on Saturday 4th July. Earlier, at 1pm, the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign had hosted at the Spire a very well-attended rally in solidarity with Palestine and against the recently-announced plans of Israel to annex the Palestinian West Bank.
Many of the Palestine supporters were still on the pedestrian reservation when the far-Rightists arrived to set up their weekly protest against social distancing, with claims that Covid19 is not real (or, a variation, that it is exaggerated) and that the restrictions are being used to bring in a “New World Order”.
As the Far-Right were setting up, two members of the Special Detective Unit (in the past called the “Special Branch” as they remain known by many, along with less kind names) were seen chatting to them. These political Gardaí in plainclothes were easily identified since some who had attended the earlier demonstration at the Lithuanian Embassy against the threatened extradition of Liam Campbell (see separate report by Clive Sulish on Rebel Breeze) had seen them there, standing near the uniformed Gardaí, watching the protesters. The nature of the conversation of these undercover political police with the Far-Rightists is not known but appeared cordial and certainly they were not asking them for their names and addresses as they had done recently to people protesting in solidarity with political prisoners.
Soon jeers and cat-calls were crossing the street in each direction. The Right-wingers had a loudspeaker advantage for awhile but then one appeared among their opponents too. Even before that, the speaker for the Far-Rightists was accusing their opponents, not one of whom had crossed the road towards them, of being “violent” and claiming that the Rightists were peaceful and were “not going to respond to the violence” of the other side.
It was not long however before some of the Far-Right militants were crossing the road to throw insults and threats at their opponents at closer quarters who of course responded verbally. Gardaí then arrived and gently asked the Far-Rightists to return to the GPO side and one of the Rightists, pointing at the their opponents, who were still on the pedestrian reservation, actually demanded of the cops “Why don’t youse tell them to go back?”
This went on a number of times with the Gardaí intervening less and less. At one point I had one unmasked ginger-haired thug a few inches from my face photographing me, repeatedly calling me a “scumbag” and a “terrorist” (interesting) but when he told me I was destroying his country (!) I couldn’t resist asking “How am I destroying the country?” He declined to reply to my repeated question, moving on to express his aggression to someone else.
At this point I had become distracted by one of their supporters who was trying to have a conversation with me. I obliged and it was quite revealing on the disparate nature of many of the elements in these right-wing rallies. She told me that she was not racist and was bisexual and not right-wing and her friend (also present) was half-German, so why were we calling them racists and fascists? I was engaging her on some of the things that have been said by some of the group she was with and pointing out some individuals I had seen in support of Gemma Doherty, explaining to her that if she attends rallies of those people, she is going to be subjected to calls against fascists and racists.
Shortly I became aware of a disturbance behind me which, on turning I could see was a fight that was moving towards the east side of O’Connell St. (southbound traffic) where both ended up fighting fiercely on the ground. Before I could see who they were, five or six Gardaí then intervened and separated them, at which point I could identify both combatants: one was a Republican whom I had seen a little earlier sitting on the base of the flagpole in the middle of the pedestrian reservation (apparently where he was when attacked) and his assailant was the very one who had earlier been venting aggression at me and trying to provoke me into physical retaliation.
Once they had separated them the Gardaí were treating this matter as one of equal blame on both sides and saying things like “Don’t be silly now” whereas it was clearly the case that a fascist had crossed the road with aggressive intent and had then taken that further into physical aggression.
Later, when I remonstrated with some of the Gardaí that if we had crossed the road and behaved in that way, they would have at least pulled us out, “Go over there if you want,” said one of them, “I can’t stop you.” I pointed out to him that an antifascist who had approached Gemma Doherty supporters at the Dept. of Justice some months earlier had been threatened by a Garda Sergeant with arrest under the Public Order Act. (On that occasion too, the Gardaí had allowed the Far-Rightists to walk among the counter-protesters).
It seems from recent cases that the line the Gardaí are following is that if it looks like being a serious all-out fight they will police it hard and keep the two sides apart but, if smaller scattered fights break out they will break them up without arrests, especially if Republicans are being attacked and possibly, in future, use these occasions to arrest antifascists who defend themselves or respond to provocation.
It is historically true that police forces in capitalist states favour fascist movements, a fact seen throughout Europe. In London, in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, fought to prevent a march of the fascist “Blackshirts” through a largely Jewish East End, the main confrontation was between the antifascists on the barricades and the escort for the 2,000-3,000 fascists: 7,000 Metropolitan Police, along with the whole of the London mounted police force.
“WE ARE NOT RACISTS AND WE ARE FOR THE PALESTINIANS”
The above was one of the claims of the speaker of the Far-Rightists, made repeatedly. This is a new development in their rhetoric and they claimed to have some Polish and also a Palestinian among their number. This last at least appeared to be true and a big man of Middle-Eastern appearance was among them and was seen later chatting to some Gardaí. A man I know informed me that this man is a Palestinian but a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (right-wing Islamic fundamentalist group).
Gemma Doherty has posted much racist material (and outright lies), as has Justin Barrett of the National Party, both of them objecting to the election of Councillor Hazel Chu as Lord Mayor, Barrett going so far as to say that he would remove Ms.Chu’s nationality if he were in power, even though she was born in the Mater Hospital and raised and educated in Dublin.
The Far-Right, which is a mixed bag in any case, were happy to use O’Doherty’s notoriety to push their movement further but perhaps they are finding her a bit of a liability now and are remodeling themselves as some kind of inclusive alternative movement for civil freedoms etc. They are still promoting their opposition to the idea of legislation against “hate speech” discussed by the previous Government and demanding their right to “free speech”. This actually does hearken back to O’Doherty’s campaign against Google, who closed down her Youtube channels because of alleged racist abuse.
If they are going to drop the racist rhetoric and claim multi-culturalism, presumably they will have to abandon the “Replacement” conspiracy theory, whereby the EU allegedly has a plan to replace all the Irish with migrants! However the challenge with which their militants first approached their opponents on Sunday of “Are you Irish?”, just as they did at the O’Doherty rallies, hardly exudes multi-culturalism.
The other elements of Far-Right rhetoric and propaganda remain, however: that they are “Patriots” (sic – hence the strutting around with the Tricolour and “Irish Republic” flags); they are Christians (“walking in the steps of God” according to their speaker that day); that their opponents areall in an organisation called “Antifa” and funded by the millionaire Soros (also according to their speaker); and that governments are assisting in a coming to power of a “New World Order”.
CANNOT BE TOLERATED
It is not acceptable that Republicans or any kind of antifascist can be attacked on our streets and it must not be tolerated. Apart from anything else fascists will use incidents like that to promote themselves as some kind of “warriors” to build up their fascist thug forces while at the same time part of their movement will be playing the victim and proclaiming their “peacefulness”, as was amply demonstrated today. This is exactly the dual road of the advance of fascism historically.
There is something wrong with our organisation in the broad sense too, it seems to me, if our opponents, at least some of whom wish us harm, can walk among our ranks with impunity. In some places today they were blocked and one youth was even pursued until he returned to his group but in many places they just walked in and it was one of those who assaulted the Republican today.
On another issue, as I have pointed out in the past, these confrontations may tend to have the Far-Right appear as patriotic to onlookers, since it is they who are waving the Tricolour and “Irish Republic” flags and some wearing green tops too. For the sake of educating the public, the antifascists need to fly their flags too, whether these be tricolours as well and/or Starry Ploughs, Red, Red-and-Black or Black flags, including those with the Antifascist symbol, or that of the LGBT movement or indeed others. Placards countering the fascist and racist propaganda and exposing fake patriotism should also be visible.
The most crucial thing is that the Far-Right movement with its fascist core be not permitted to appear a viable option for the Irish ruling class to choose. We have had some successes, for example in preventing Pegida launching in Dublin in 2016 and some confrontations with the Far-Right – but it is clear that there remains a deal of work to be done.
When plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater on to land, it was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Those early plants were not just explorers but colonisers and innovators; many died but those that survived changed the world, its very earth and atmosphere.
There are about 320,000 known species of plants, a total that does not include most hybrids, sub-species or selectively-bred varieties. Botanists exclude from the term “plants” some of the green and all of the brown sea algae as well as the fungi and bacteria. The vast majority of plants are coloured some variety of green because of the action of photosynthesis inside them, which attracts the blue and red ends of the light spectrum but does not absorb green, which is why we see them in that colour. Some 260,000 to 290,000 species produce seeds but algae does not. Mosses and ferns, which are plants, produce spores instead, in common with fungi (which however are not plants).
We study life to place it in an order, to simplify understanding but life diversifies into a huge array.
Plants are pioneers, colonisers, innovators and builders at least comparable to the animal kingdom, to which they are related and, I would argue, with a superior record.
Plants first “crept” out of the sea and freshwater during the Ordovician period, around 470 million years ago; they were non-vascular (without “veins”) and without roots, like mosses and liverworts. It was a perilous undertaking. The shore and in particular the sea shore is a very hostile environment, subject to battering and scouring action of wave, wind and wind-driven sand, alternating between inundation and desiccation and even both in the same day. Plants on land carry the genes of the early explorers, pioneers, survivors – high in endurance, adaptability and innovation.
But why abandon the seas, lakes and rivers in the first place? Presumably there is always a pressure in nature to explore niches and new territory, thereby escaping pressures of population, predation, competition and consumption of available nutrition … And while some life-forms specialise in particular environments and nature also pressures in that direction, ultimately that is a highly dangerous strategy, general adaptability to food sources and environments being the best bets for long-term survival and multiplying – as shown by homo sapiens, for example.
First ashore, establishing a literal (and littoral :-)) beachhead, might have been a kind of algal slime. Perhaps it survived only while wet, died, was replaced by other migrants …. but probably at some point some carried survival pockets within them, able to regenerate when moistened anew. Or it might have been some moss or liverwort, later a branched and trailing plant but dealing with the same problems and developing a similar strategy for survival.
We can imagine a conversation, in which one plant organism on the shore questions another:
“It gets so dry here I feel I am going to wither and blow away.”
“Just hang on there. We’ll get rain soon. And there’s always dew at night.”
“I can hardly wait. Remind me why we didn’t stay where were were, with all that lovely moisture.”
“Getting eaten by other life-forms. Competition for light.”
“Oh, yeah. Sometimes I forget.”
REACHING DOWN, STANDING UP
In lakes, plants could simply float upright in the water reaching towards the light (and avoiding being covered in sand or silt) as many water plants do today, or on the surface, as algal mats and bloom do, or for example the various types of “duckweed” that not only float but multiply to cover the whole pond surface. In the sea and in fast-flowing rivers however, fixed plants needed to grasp surfaces and developed means of doing so; but these were not roots as such – more like anchors. Later, as they colonised the land, most plants did indeed develop roots not only to anchor themselves in the ground or to cling to difficult surfaces but also to bring up water, the tap roots for this purpose often going quite deep. Roots also brought up nutrients.
The roots also made it possible to cling to inhospitable surfaces, including even the perpendicular or overhanging and also to exploit cracks and fissures by tunneling into them. In the course of this activity, plants changed their immediate physical environment, by helping to break down stone and also by trapping material blowing in the wind.
But why set up home clinging to a cliff or today, a wall or a chimney stack? Well, plenty of sunshine, for one thing, no competition for another! Of course, not much soil there or even none at all for nutrition – but still, most things in life are a trade-off, right? How did the seeds get up there in the first place? Wind … or birdshit.
Of course, some of the colonisers developed other ways to cling to surfaces, as was the case with the mosses, lichens and liverworts. And they also trapped material and contributed their own to it as they died, regenerated, died …. But without roots that only works when you keep low and hug the ground. If you want to grow tall to reach for sunlight and if you want to exploit soil, you need roots.
Plants at first fed almost exclusively on sunlight it seems, broken down into sugars by chlorophyll in photosynthesis. But those that developed roots also, probably as anchors to prevent themselves being blown or washed away, or to help them grow tall and compete with other plants to catch the sun, learned to draw up water and to feed on nutrients in the soil – phosphates, nitrogen, potassium etc. Some, like the legumes, beans, peas and gorse for example, even learned to extract one of the gases that make up air, nitrogen and, with the help of a bacteria, to fix and store nodes of it around their roots.
Once you have roots, why not grow stems, branches, trunks, whereby you can reach higher and higher, for more unimpeded sunlight and outpacing the competition perhaps. Your building material will need to be tougher, especially for trees, bushes and shrubs, to bear the weight, withstand the winds …. but flexible enough to stretch as you grow. Having the ideal material already in cellulose, all that is necessary is some kind of hardening process. A plant might explain to puzzled humans: “Think of keratin and how the same basic substance has been used to make stuff as varied as feathers, fur, human hair and beetle carapaces.”
If you were a plant that had learned to spread fast over distances to catch the sun, covering ground and clambering over obstacles, you might find one day that there is another way to reach towards the sun – climb up the plants that are reaching up there! Don’t invest in slow build-up and hardening of cellulose – go for fast growth and gripping or winding ability instead, or turn some of your leaves into grasping tendrils. Some climbers such as lianas in the tropics and ivy and honeysuckle in Ireland, are perpetual climbers, remaining in position throughout the year (although the honeysuckle will lose most of its leaves in the Autumn) and extending during the growing seasons. Others climb only in the Spring and Summer and die afterwards, for example bindweed and runner-beans.
Most plants have leaves, which is where the photosynthesis takes place; they are in fact sunlight collectors and the plants deploy them to best effect to catch the available sun. Quite a late development, they were flanges on the stems first before becoming appendages further out of the plant’s main body. Most leaves are intricately veined and contain many different layers and parts and it is within them that photosynthesis takes place but strangely, they are mostly short-lived and in cold seasons even in perennial plants, with a few exception, all but the conifers let them fall.
The greater the volume of material created by plants, the more there was to decompose with their deaths or seasonal decline. Bacteria, already long existent on the planet, evolved to feed on this detritus and break it down into soil, which the same plants or others could turn to their advantage as a medium in which to anchor but also from which to draw nutrients. Other organisms evolved to live on and break down cellulose too, the main building material of plants: fungi, gastropods like snails and slugs, woodlice, termites …..
The plants, with the help of bacteria and other organisms, were creating the environment below them!
But they were and are doing more than that: they are also creating an environment immediately around them. The most concentrated examples are perhaps rain forests, tropical, temperate and cold-climate, retaining a surrounding moisture-laden air, in which not only the local tree species thrive but also providing ideal environments for ferns, algae, orchids and epiphytes and, of course, mosses.
Away from forests, sphagnum moss creates a mini-atmosphere around itself and as generations die, their bodies create a spongy moisture-laden medium. This bog is quite capable of existing on an incline, with much of the water being retained by the vegetation and ‘soil’, as may be seen in a number of examples in Ireland, such as parts of the Dublin and Wicklow Mountains.
Plants, especially trees, discharge oxygen into the air and consume carbon dioxide during the daytime, for which reason they are sometimes called “the lungs of the world”. They have not only created an environment for themselves, below, around and above but also for so many other life-forms – including ourselves.
LEARNING TO LIVE IN DIFFERENT CLIMES
Plants that adapted to grow in arid areas developed fleshy ‘leaves’ and often stalks, in which to store water and sometimes long tap roots to find that water. But extensive shallow root networks are good too, to collect the occasional rain water that is quickly absorbed into the soil or otherwise evaporates. The “pores” on leaves through which plants absorb carbon dioxide and allow the gas-exchange necessary for photosynthesis (stomates) also permit evaporation of water, hence many dry-condition plants have fewer of them. Some only open to collect carbon dioxide in the cool of the night and store it for use on the following day. Plants grow trichomes, tiny bristles, underneath their leaves but some arid-dwellers grow them also on top of their leaves; these ‘trap’ a layer of air that prevents or slows evaporation.
In very wet areas, plants learned to remain active by a number of strategies. Of course they originally came from aquatic environments but for some of them, returning there again after adapting to dry land, produced challenges (think of the changes necessary for land mammals to evolve into seals, otters, dolphins and whales). Nevertheless we have lilies growing in shallow water with wide floating leaves, rushes with upright blade-like leaves growing inside the water margins, thin spears of rushes in damp and water-logged land. That too is the preferred environment of some other plants and grasses, including the rice plant. And of the willows, alders and hazels growing on the banks and stabilising them. In the tropics and semi-tropics, mangroves do a similar job to willows but on a much grander scale – and they tolerate seawater too.
The alder, a tree with a high toleration of water around its roots, is thought to have been the major post-glacial coloniser of Ireland, following the retreating ice across the land. It is the only native tree which though not an evergreen produces cones, an indication of its early adaptation to cold climate. Cones, when closed, protect the seeds inside against continual freezing and thawing and, when the cones begin to dry and automatically open in spring and summer, allow the seeds inside to drop out to the ground, to be carried by river or on the wind. A closed cone collected and brought home will open as it dries; shake it then and the seeds will fall out. Alder timber, incidentally, remains waterproof for centuries, witness the wooden piles in Venice.
Adapting to cold seasons required protective materials, structures and timing. The deciduous trees (and it is worth noting that many trees have both a deciduous and an evergreen version for different climes) shed their leaves and close down for the winter, the sap retreating down to the roots. Were the sap to remain in the exposed branches it would freeze, expand and destroy them. The leaves drop because they no longer receive anything from the tree; it is going into a kind of hibernation, in preparation for the coming winter.
Many of the conifers have downward-sloping branches, to allow most of the snow to slide off, rather than break the branches with its weight. People who live in areas with heavy snowfall also tend to live under sharply sloping roofs. The “leaves” of the conifers are small, narrow and hard so that most snow falls through them and are also covered in a waxy polymer to withstand freezing. The plant cells can be emptied of water to prevent freezing but a dense waxy residue keeps them open for refilling. So, of course, they have to be tolerant of dehydration. Concentration of sugars also lowers the freezing point and small flexible conduits for water resist the formation of large ice bubbles that can burst those “pipes”.
Seeds know which way is “up” and which is “down”, which is quite an amazing thing; the tap root of a seed, germinating in the dark, goes downwards while its shoot grows upward.
In fact, the plant seed also knows the right time to germinate – too early in many climes and it will be killed by frost, too late and it will have insufficient time to develop before the next cold period or will be unable to compete with other seeds that sprouted earlier, depriving the late-comer of sunlight and possibly nutrients. The decision is made by a number of factors feeding into a small cluster in the seed tip, consisting of preventative and initiator command centres. When the initiator section’s hormones exceed that of the preventative, it is time to germinate. Not very different from our brains’ decision-making process, is it?
Also, cut a living branch and often the plant will mobilise to produce one or more shoots at the cut-site. But should that cut be enclosed within soil, the tree or bush will produce roots instead – it ‘knows’ the difference. This knowledge the gardener takes advantage of when she “air-layers” a shrub or tree by nicking a branch, then covers the cut with soil wrapped in a plastic bag, waiting for a root to develop and then cutting the cloned sapling free, ready to plant.
Without eyes, plants are also capable of detecting where the light is; if one places a climbing plant seedling in a dark cellar with a small window high above, the plant will climb towards the window, striving to reach the light. The sunflower and the flowers of some other plants turn towards the sun, following its progress across the sky. Many flowers, including those of the dandelions and daisies all around us at this time of year, close when the day ends. A “Swiss Cheese Plant” I once had managed to slip one of its suckers — like a long surface root — down the back out of sight and when I eventually discovered it, the sucker had gone under the carpet and had extended around six feet towards the window.
Of course, it may have been searching for moisture.
Plants can sense moisture and do go looking for it, something at which eucalypts are particularly adept. Unfortunately, this can cause problems for other trees and shrubs growing in the same area, as the eucalypts suck up the water from greater depths (the eucalypt doesn’t care however nor do some of its planters). During the severe drought in parts of the USA last year, it was reported that trees were breaking open water pipes with their roots to get at the precious liquid. It appears that the reports were mistaken but instead the roots were extending towards the detected moisture from leaks in the pipework. Of course, then the roots might widen the gap ….
Some plants at least are also ‘aware’ of being attacked, for example by an infestation of caterpillars. Those that have reserves of a defensive poison at their disposal are not only able to deploy it but also to communicate to other nearby trees of the same species, so that they too deploy the poison – before the caterpillars have even reached them! It is thought that the trees communicate underground, through their roots.
Plants also know when their offspring have reached enough numbers and a sufficiently advanced stage so as to put their energy into maturing them, rather than producing more growth or even more seeds. Presumably they receive a chemical signal when enough roses have bloomed, been fertilised and the rose hips, the fruit containing the seeds, are swelling. Likewise when the beans inside a runner-bean pod have swollen and will shortly be ready to burst the pod and drop to earth. Gardeners know how to fool the plants into continuing to produce for a longer period by “dead-heading” dying flowers and picking runner-bean pods when they are still very young.
THORNS, SPINES, POISONS, GAS – AND HELPERS
Among the many features that plants have developed are an impressive array of defences. Filamentous algae, with low mass investment and constantly renewing, probably did not need defences nor perhaps did the plants that first came ashore. Defence against what, after all? But later, as soon as animal life began to develop on land …..
Here in the north-west of Europe we are familiar with thorns and spines on the trunks and branches of the rose and briar, blackberry, gooseberry, gorse, blackthorn and hawthorn. It is not always on the trunks and branches that the sharp spikes are to be found, as we are reminded by the prickly leaves of the thistles and holly. Thorny and spiny defences are repeated around the world on other plants from acacias to cacti and many others. Thorns stab, rip and tear but spines lodge in the skin and continue to irritate, some forming sites of infection.
Well at least you’re safe among grass, right? Not necessarily, for example the dune builder grasses, marram or beach grass, can cut the skin of mammals moving through it. In other parts of the world they have aptly-named ‘sword’ and ‘saw’ grasses. Some of these cut with a thin edge but many with tiny hair-like spines growing on the underside of grass blades, called trichomes, defend against herbivorous invertebrates but may also cause “grass itch” in some people.
Mostly, these are a defence against grazing animals or protection against the theft of the plants’ fruits. Other plants have developed poisons, which they employ not only against mammal and bird grazers but also against insects such as caterpillars (as commented earlier) and locusts; examples in Ireland are the foxglove and the deadly nightshade or belladonna, a relative of the tomato and potato. Another is the hemlock, a relative of the carrot, parsley and angelica plants – even its sap can burn your skin. An invasive shrub or small tree, the cherry laurel, carries arsenic within its wood, leaves and berries and can be seen in many gardens, parks and growing wild around much of Wicklow.
But trees have also been observed to emit chemical compounds that attract the enemies of parasites or grazers feeding on the trees.
Poisons can be employed against competing plants too, as does the hydrangea, a shrub with lovely luxuriant flowers in your garden (or indeed in a public park in Howth) but a seriously invasive plant in the wild as it eliminates its competition and grows unchecked. It does this by a relationship with a bacteria around its roots that produces a poison to kill competing vegetation. However, the native pine also produces an allelopathy in its discarded needles, inhibiting the germination of other plant seeds and growth – it is not only the blocking of sunlight that keeps pine forests so free of undergrowth.
The onion carries an aroma warning that rough handling of the bulb will produce a gas attack on eyes and nasal passages, as known to any who have handled them in food preparation.
Plants employ some poisons continually but others selectively, as in ripening seeds (for example in the seed pods of the laburnum) or in sensitive growing tips (for example the fiddleheads or curled growing tips of bracken, toxic to grazers). The daffodil is a lovely plant and safe to handle but digging up the bulbs and mistaking them for wild onions can have fatal consequences for the eater. And as we have seen elsewhere, leaves can become poisonous as trees mobilise chemicals from tree to tree when under attack by caterpillars.
However, some plants welcome insects as protectors too, as for example with a species of ant that lives in some acacias and helps keep the tree free of pathogens.
When considering plant poisons we are reminded too of the stinging nettle, which introduces its defence to us in childhood, never to be forgotten. In North America, one would always remember a brush with its poison ivy. The Giant Hogweed, also a member of the carrot and parsley family but invasive to Ireland, causes a very painful rash following bare skin contact.
There are many localised wars going on out there.
FLAUNTING FLOWERS – AND FLIERS, SAILORS, ROLLERS AND HITCHHIKERS
Along with all their other innovations, plants evolved some very impressive ones in procreation, particularly in dispersing the next generation. Pollen, a fine powdery substance that is the equivalent of mammal sperm could be and was spread by the wind. The development of the flower and blossom brought in a partnership with animal pollinators to greater efficiency. Attracted by nectar and to some extent pollen, both insects and some birds visited male plants flaunting their flowers and unconsciously picked up pollen which they deposited at another flower they visited, thereby soon fertilising female flowers.
Flowers were developed in a huge variety of shapes and colours in order to attract pollinators — and then came smell. Some botanists speculate that scent was first used by some plants to discourage insects and grazers which, if true, is amazing enough. To then go on to develop scent to attract pollinators is a leap that staggers the imagination. Flowers and blossoms using smell are particularly noticeable at dusk and night, a time when flowers are hardly visible, when presumably they are visited by moths.
Early plants did not have seeds so the whole paraphernalia around them had to be developed from other existing parts with originally different functions (some of us could convert a bicycle, a machine for locomotion, into an electric power generator but still ….)
Behind the flowers of many species is a little node which when fertilised begins to swell and form a fruit, with the developing seeds inside — or single seed in the case of Prunus species, the plum family, for example. This is another amazing trick of the plant – it has produced attractive fruits, full of sugars when ripe, to attract animals (such as ourselves) to pick them and either discard the seeds as we eat the fruit or pass them through our gut to be deposited on earth — along with a handy dollop of manure. A botanist investigating the occurrence of isolated copses of trees on the grassy plains of the South American Pampas concluded that horses were eating the nuts of the parent trees some distance away then, as they travelled across the plains, at some point defecated with some intact nuts among their faeces: some years later – a grove of trees. Of course horses have only been in the Pampas for a few centuries and probably the other local grazers don’t eat saplings.
Nuts are also stored in different caches by some mammals and birds, for example here in Ireland by squirrels and magpies. They don’t always dig up all the stores later – perhaps they forget where some of them were – and in the spring, those nuts become saplings.
Well enough. But producing fruit and nuts is a lot of work and depends on the assistance of animals, especially mammals and birds, for dispersal. Some plants scorn to use them and instead employ the wind. Dandelions, thistles and many other plants send their seeds off on downy parachutes, often to land kilometres away. Some, like the sycamore, grow “wings” on their seeds which, when dry, spin away on the wind and not only that but when they strike mud are sometimes twisted by the wind on their “wing” to ‘screw’ the seed into the soil.
Many plants with pods, for example the legumes, will have their pods crack open when dry to “spill the beans” upon the soil. That is not good enough for the gorse or furze, the pods of which explode on a summer’s day, shooting the seeds away. One such day I sat among gorse bushes on Killiney Hill and was startled to hear what sounded like a weak pistol shot. Then another …. and another …. and all around me the bushes were shooting out their seeds, the lucky ones to create new bushlets (yes, I did just make up that word) the following year.
The casings of chestnuts, both edible and the ‘conker’ variety hit the ground, some cracking open as they do so and roll away from the tree. The casings of the edible ones are spiny, which no doubt afford the nuts inside some protection from being eaten (and trodden) until they are covered by fallen leaves or strike a root into the ground. Again, the lucky ones will become saplings and, enough sunlight (and goats) permitting, grow to become trees. The Mexican “jumping bean” rolls itself away from its parent, turning over and over, albeit slowly.
With fruit and nuts we saw plant offspring being cached or stowing away inside birds and mammals. But some hitch-hike on the outside too, like the burs that work their way into animal fur and into our woolen clothing. These are seed cases covered in tiny hooks, said to have been the inspiration for the invention of velcro fastenings in clothes. The cleaver or “sticky-back” may attach many of its small burs to a passing mammal, while the burdock, with its much larger burs, is more likely to hitch a ride in ones or twos. Tiny seeds of many grasses stick to wool, fur and hair too, especially when damp. But many other grasses with larger seeds, including cereals, grow “ears” with spikes attached to each seed and these too, when dry and ready to go, get picked up by the wool or fur of passing traffic.
The pines even use forest fires to spread seeds from inside their cones on the hot wind – each seed has a little vane around it to help it sail the wind. Sure, many will burn before they sail or blow into another fire – but some will survive. The alternative is just to burn.
The coconut, on the other hand, floats its fruit to distant shores – it is not for tourist brochures that the palms grew fringing tropical beaches. Falling coconuts roll away from the tree too – if they don’t hit some unfortunate large animal first. Many other plants use floods to populate different areas, often creating stronger banks or islands as their offspring grow, sometimes even changing the very course of a river or stream. The various willows and alders are adepts at this, as are many kinds of reeds and rushes.
The latter kind of colonisation may be by seeds but there are other methods too: severed branches or leaves that grow roots into water, uprooted saplings, tubers and bulbs. Bulbs, rhizomes and strings of tubers have been used by many plants to store food for offspring, nascent new plants hiding below or on the ground. Even when a field of potatoes is harvested, there are often tiny potatoes remaining that escaped the harvesting procedure – the following year, they may be seen, sprouting new plants.
Some plants are capable of employing all of the various methods of reproduction and distribution: seed, tuber, branch or leaf regeneration.
A somewhat similar method to strings of tubers – and possibly their actual origin – is the underground runner, like a root running just below and parallel to the surface, sending out shoots upwards and roots downwards at intervals, each of those becoming a new plant, a clone. Many grasses employ this procedure, some bunching close like the bamboo and others spreading away in different directions, as for example with the couch or scutch grass. The latter may be to the despair of the gardener, who however will use runners of the strawberry to grow new fruiting plants.
Grasses are a late and special kind of plant that can be grazed down to ground level and grow again, year after year. This provided a renewable food source for animals that could convert its leaves and seeds into sufficient energy – enter herds of goat and sheep, horse, donkey, zebra, deer, antelope, bison and cattle! And therefore enter their predators too, in particular the big cats, canines and – homo sapiens. She in turn would domesticate some of those species, including another predator as helper, the canine. That combination would change the world quite significantly and when homo sapiens learned to cultivate some of the grasses for their seeds, i.e cereals, well ……!
NB:Thanks to Oisín Breatnach for editing work (all subsequent errors etc are mine) and Osgur Breatnach for reminding me of the onion in a separate discussion.
Cycling through Griffith Park off the Mobhi Road, after a walk in the nearby Botanic Gardens, a flurry of wings and a flash of colours attracted my attention. Three birds came down with a splash into the Tolka.
You don’t need to be any kind of expert to identify the Mandarin Duck, especially the males and that’s what two of those birds were. The dowdier third one was the female.
I have often noted two male mallard ducks peacefully accompanying one female and wondered whether they had a menage-a-trois going or what the arrangement was. But there was nothing like that going on with the Mandarins as the males made clear quite quickly. After briefly circling around one another they were quickly into fisticuffs (or beak-and-wing-cuffs), scuffle-splashing, clucking insult or challenge, until the rival to the established male would take to the wing either for a break or to get next to the female. In the latter case, the male would take to the air also, in pursuit.
The female? She swam demurely apart waiting for the victor.
There was clearly one established male who for the moment was the dominant one but the rival kept coming back while I was watching and they were still at it when I left. The established one has the psychological dominance factor on his side, which is a strong advantage but it is by no means a guarantee of success. The rival might wear him down. Or the established one might become injured. Being a male and keeping one’s bird is not easy.
According to Charles Darwin, genders of many species but many birds in particular have become colour-differentiated through part of the evolutionary process described as sexual selection (The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871). This has reached amazing and one might say even bizarre though beautiful extremes with such birds as the peacock and the bird of paradise.
Darwin’s ideas make more sense than other explanations being proposed but it is nevertheless hard to credit that a female’s appreciation of colour, shape and behaviour would so impress upon the male the need to flaunt gaudy colour and shape in direct contravention of the need to survive predators by NOT calling such attention to himself. Still, there is no other viable contender explanation around (as distinct from the Mandarin contender, who may still be biding his time or pressing his suit, which if the established male has anything to say about it, is all he is going to press).
Aix galericulata is the Latin species name and the only other species in the Aix genus is the North American Wood duck. A chromosome in the Mandarin makes hybridisation between the two impossible.
Mandarin Ducks originate in East Asia but have been kept in Europe in aviaries and in ponds and lakes. Stephens Green used to have some, along with many other kinds of wildfowl, until the OPW allowed the Herring Gulls to take over to the extent that they have. I have not seen them do it but would not be in the least surprised if the gulls ate the chicks of many of the waterfowl species until they died out or took off somewhere else.
However, there have been feral Mandarin populations in Ireland for some time, notably in Co. Down and in Wexford and pairs may be establishing themselves in other places, including in the Glasnevin/ Drumcondra area, based around the Tolka (and perhaps the Royal Canal).
The Mandarin is a perching duck and this kind have feet capable of grasping a branch. They build their nests in hollows in trees which is good for the safety of the nesting female and the eggs. But what of the chicks or ducklings? As we know, ducklings take to the water long before they can fly. So what can these ducklings in tree hollows, many feet from the ground, do? They simply jump. A veritable leap into the unknown.
When they hit the ground, which at first sight seems to ensure they have broken practically every bone in their little bodies or a least concussed themselves and messed up their insides, they bounce a little, get up and waddle to their mother. Yes, she called them out, which is why they came.
One needs to see the process to believe and I have included some Youtube links. It would seem at first that they need soft leaf litter or water in which to land but one of the links I have posted shows Mandarin ducklings jumping from a nestbox on to bare stone — and getting up, apparently unhurt. It is difficult to understand, even with accounting for the relationship of weight to surviving a fall. We probably know that we can drop lots of insect species on to the ground and they don’t get hurt but the principle goes farther — apparently a mouse can survive a fall from a great height (unless a hawk gets it on the way down, or a cat is waiting below); conversely a fall of four foot on to its feet can kill an elephant (so it is said — I have not actually tried this with elephants but I have inadvertently confirmed the mouse theory).
Often invasive species should not be welcomed as they upset the natural ecological balance. The grey squirrel in the nearby Botanic Gardens, originally from the USA, may be cute but it is helping to wipe out the native red species. And that’s just one of the invasive species of animal and plant that are causing problems in Ireland (see https://rebelbreeze.wordpress.com/2014/07/01/the-scent-of-intruders/). On the other hand, the widely-distributed Red Valerian (also with white and pink varieties) does not seem to be causing any problems and it is difficult to see how the Mandarin can become a serious problem either. But of course, one does not know for sure. It can be stated that the populations so far established in Britain and in Ireland do not seem to have caused any ecological problems. And it is true that we don’t have many dense woods in Ireland anywhere (thanks to certain human invaders in our history), least of all close to slow-flowing water, although some species have shown remarkable adaptability, witness in these climes the rat, fox, pigeon, herring gull and, of course, homo sapiens.
One of the curious things about the Mandarin is the name we have for it. Apparently, it is a Portuguese word for the Chinese government bureaucrats in existence when the Portuguese first began to trade with them (before they and other Europeans decided to invade China and confiscate areas, in particular ports and islands). How they became associated with the duck was not revealed in my short internet search.
However, in China and in Korea the mandarin duck is associated with fertility, good fortune and constancy in monogamy, so that it is often presented as a wedding gift, either as living pairs or symbolically in an ornament. It is not currently considered an extermination-threatened species.
Video links (second one is of merganser ducklings and is even more impressive):
A high-pitched but hoarse scream cuts through the night. Again and again it is heard, then is silent. A frightening sound, perhaps of a person being attacked …. But no, it is a vixen, a female red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Why is she screaming? Is she in pain? Not exactly — she is informing dog-foxes in the area that she is ready to mate and where they can find her.
But this is December and, according to Internet site after site dealing with foxes in Britain and in Ireland, she is at least a month early1. Perhaps she is a rare exception, this vixen in the Drumcondra area but it seems to me more likely that the sites have it wrong: either urban foxes breed earlier or the breeding pattern of foxes is changing. Actually, a combination of both is likely.
A vixen breeding in January would give birth to her cubs just over 50 days later, when in rural areas the earth is warming up in the Spring and when lambs are born, hares are boxing, eggs are being laid, greens are growing and being eaten by rabbits – in other words, food is becoming available for the vixen. Obviously vixens breeding in February or March will have yet more food available in April or May but may also find greater competition, in food and for a mate.
Say this rural vixen conceived on 1st January, then she would give birth on or around 22nd February. She will need feeding just before that and probably up to24th March, a task falling to the dog fox and to unmated young females who may be part of the community. The cubs need the warmth of the mother’s body for up to three weeks after birth and she cannot leave the den. One month after giving birth the mother vixen may go hunting while the “aunts” look after the cubs, who are now venturing out of the den or “earth” (but staying very close to it).
The food brought to the young is carried inside the hunters’ bellies and regurgitated for the young to consume along with their mother’s milk which they will suckle until six weeks of age. After weaning, the cubs will eat solid food but cannot yet hunt for it themselves until perhaps mid-late Summer and, if males, will leave to establish their own territories in the Autumn.2Males become sexually mature at one year of age.
A vixen breeding in December in an Irish rural area might have difficulty receiving enough sustenance in January or even early February, especially in decades past when winters were usually harder. However, with changing seasonal weather patterns tending to warmer winters – and in urban areas where a lot of food tends to be available for scavenging all year round – these problems are substantially reduced and so breeding in December should present little difficulties. So the thinking goes among the vixens in Drumcondra, anyway and, I suspect, in many other Irish and British urban areas.
The male or ‘dog’ fox can be heard sometimes too in a staccato bark, normally three (but occasionally four) rapid barks: bak, bak, bak!
THE URBAN FOX
The urban fox is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland3, as far as we know, although in Bristol, for example, they have been recorded since the 1930s. Up to fairly recently, a number of experts maintained that the fox populations of city and countryside had little contact with one another. But in January 2014 “it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s Winterwatch, had travelled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting, due to suspected water damage.”4
and the Country Foxes
Decades before I heard of this I often fancifully imagined a conversation between a fox, now settled in the “big city”, and his country relations when he returned on a visit. After the initial customary welcoming, sniffing, licking etc are over, the conversation might go like this:
“So, Darkie, tell us, what is life like in the big city?”
“Ah, it was scary at first, with cars and buses and lorries going all day. You wouldn’t believe the noise.”
(Sympathetic whine from the audience).
“But I’m used to it now, Redthree, I have to say. And the food! You could not imagine!”
“Good, is it?”
“Lovely, Whitepatch, absolutely delicious.”
(Sounds of salivating all around).
“Chicken, beef, lamb, fish, potatoes, bread, rice, vegetables, fruit – just left out there to be eaten!”
“Ah, you’re havin’ us on, Darkie. We might be “Culchies” but we’re not stupid! You expect us to believe the humans feed you like they do their dogs, do you?”
“No, of course not, Greymuzzle. Well, actually a few do leave out food on purpose for us but no, this is mostly food that humans are throwing away. We find it in plastic bags and metal containers.”
“They throw away food?”
“They do and huge amounts of it too. Then big lorries come and take away what we have not eaten ourselves.”
“Where do they take it?”
“I am not sure. I’ve never troubled to find out because, to be honest, I have all the food I need nearby.”
(Silence while country foxes imagine a huge mountain of food somewhere).
“Er …. Darkie, so you never hunt now?”
“Oh, yes, some – the city rats and mice eat the discarded food too and they grow plump and big. Yes, I catch and eat them too.”
“Well now, what about all the humans?”
“What about them, Lighteyes? They don’t bother us.”
“Don’t the humans have guns in the city?”
“Some of them do, Lighteyes. But they don’t shoot foxes with them.”
“Really? What do they shoot with their guns then?”
“Other humans, Lighteyes, just other humans.”
(Noises of amazement and disbelief)
THE INNER CITY FOX
The Internet sites all agree that foxes are more likely in suburbia than in the inner city but I think they ignore some important features of the inner city which foxes can frequent in relative safety and around which they are likely to find sufficient food: railroad lines and their banks, canal and river banks, parks, allotments, cemeteries and derelict sites. One can’t get much closer to Dublin’s inner city than Parnell Square, yet I have seen foxes in a laneway off there and also squeezing through the railings to enter the Garden of Remembrance. They have been photographed near the Irish Parliament, the Dáil (though some people might say that’s less surprising with the number of scavengers nearby :–). I’d be surprised if they are not to be found along the banks of the Dodder, the Liffey, the Tolka and both canals, also along the railway lines and in Glasnevin and other cemeteries.
According to one Internet site5, the urban fox population in Dublin may be growing too big for its own health, as the ready availability of food allows unhealthy individuals to exist, diseased and covered in mange infestation (mites that denude patches of fur). I would need to explore this argument before I could accept it.
I am familiar with the overpopulation argument in the case of grazing animals or rodents, where too many individuals consume the available resources and the whole population suffers – a fate usually occurring when natural predators are not present to thin out the weaker individuals and thereby unconsciously preserve the general population in a healthier state.
But how would this work with regard to Dublin foxes? It seems unlikely that the food available is being reduced yet and if and when it is, one presumes healthier foxes will outcompete their sicker species members. Also, sick and undernourished foxes are less likely to come into oestrous and should they do so and conceive, to be able to raise their young. It seems to me most likely that what is occurring is that foxes that would normally have been winnowed out in the struggle of survival are now able to sustain themselves, which might be distressing to see but which will not necessarily have any effect on the healthy population.6 And will healthy individuals necessarily succumb to mange infection from infested individuals? And if they do now, might they not in time learn to chase infected individuals away?
Theories of overpopulation and scare stories about foxes attacking babies, cats and so on seem prompted by the intention to cull foxes, as Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, proposed. Johnson seems unwilling to learn from history, as “there was a large and expensive effort to reduce the number of urban foxes across the UK in the 1970s, but the population subsequently bounced right back.”7The average litter now may be four cubs but vixens have been known to bear up to a dozen and with a low population-to-high-food-sources ratio, are likely to bear a greater number of cubs. And a recent National Health Service survey in the UK indicated that nearly 60% of all stings and bites admitted to emergency rooms were inflicted by dogs8but anyone suggesting a cull of urban dogs would probably find a gathering bearing pitchforks and burning torches outside their home.
There have been claims that foxes kill and eat lambs, cats, other domestic pets and poultry. Most experts have concluded that if indeed a fox killed a lamb, such incidents are very rare. A ewe is capable of protecting a lamb from a fox, an animal not much larger than a cat. However, foxes have been found to eat the afterbirths of lambs and would of course eat a stillborn lamb or one that died soon after birth, after which its mother would leave and the opportunist would move in; such incidents may have convinced some people in rural areas that the fox was the cause of the lamb’s death.
The Foxwatch study program in Bristol city filmed a number of confrontations between urban foxes and cats and found that in all cases, it was the fox that backed down. This makes sense, for a predator does not usually take on another predator of similar size except in defence of its young, its own life or, at times, its kill.
Yes of course foxes will kill poultry if they can get at them and are often accused in such situations of going on a killing spree. Foxes do kill and gather more food than they need at times and, like many other animals, hide it for recovery later, marking the spot with their scent. But when a fox breaks into a poultry pen and kills its inhabitants, it usually has to leave with what it can carry and will not be permitted to return for the rest. The answer for humans is to build secure pens into which to bring the poultry at night – and that applies also to rabbits kept as pets or for the table, etc. — or keep a dog outside, unleashed.
Scare stories and unscientific suggestions to one side, wild animal populations living alongside humans frequently do need management. All species of bats are protected in Ireland and Britain and should you find them in your attic you are not permitted to remove them but must instead notify the appropriate authorities. Some people have suggested that the red fox should be granted protected species status but it is difficult to see the rationale for this, since it is on the species of “least concern” list of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Pigeons receive no protection and, though often fed by people who consider them cute or pretty, do have a negative effect on our urban environment and, in the case of seagulls, who are protected, may be responsible for the disappearance of the many species of ducks that once were common in Stephens’ Green. Rats and mice are not deliberately fed or considered cute by most people (though I have kept both myself and found the individuals tame and harmless and, in the case of rats, quite intelligent) and humanity wages war upon them with traps and poison.
Do urban foxes require management? Zoologist Dave Wall9, who has studied Dublin’s urban foxes for some years, thinks not. In his opinion, the fox population in Dublin has remained constant since the 1980s.According to statistics regularly quoted but never referenced that I can find, Dublin fox families occupy on average 1.04 Km². 10 Given a rough and probably low estimate of six individuals per fox family (a mated pair and two unmated females and two cubs) and a Dublin City area of 115 km² would give us a fox population of 663 in the city. That might seem a lot, until one hears that London holds an estimated 10,000.
Given statistics of that sort, and information that the average litter is of four cubs, one may wonder why most urban dwellers see them but rarely and also why urban foxes are not a massively growing population. There are a number of controlling influences, ranging from the need to establish territory and fight to hold it, which may cost in injuries or even death, to deaths by traffic, the most common cause of fox death according to Internet sites (although how often do we see a dead fox on the road?). A common non-captive life-span of from two to four years and a fertility “window” of only three days for a vixen would be population-controlling factors and yet the allegedly stable population is puzzling, to me at least.
The rural fox tends to inhabit, widening when necessary, burrows already excavated by rabbits and badgers. In urban areas, the fox may have to excavate its own – under buildings and sheds and into railroad banks, for example – but will also use and expand other holes and gaps.
Many urban human dwellers, probably most, never see urban foxes, although they are becoming increasingly visible. They are active mostly at dusk and shortly before dawn and are mostly likely to be seen by people who rise very early for work, or who work at night or who are returning from late night socialising on foot, by bicycle or on foot.
In the Lewisham area of South-East London where I lived for some decades, I regularly saw them on the roads while cycling home from a late music session or a friend’s house. Lewisham would be considered midway between being city and suburban in nature and contained parks, cemeteries, allotments, streams or rivers and railway lines, houses with gardens but also high-rise blocks of local authority housing and very busy roads. I once passed about three yards near to an adult fox on the housing estate I lived on for awhile between Grove Park and Eltham (also in SE London). On my allotment in Catford, if I worked until dusk (which I did often enough when I managed to find the time), they would come out and play and dig for food less than ten yards away from me. And I frequently found trainers (running shoes) and balls they had taken from outside local houses and gardens, discarded on my allotment.
A number of theories have been forwarded for the penetration of urban areas by the fox, including the shameful wiping out of rabbit populations by state-inflicted plagues of myxomatosis but the real reasons are probably the same as those of the pigeon, rat and mouse – availability of food and home provided by humans and the adaptability of the species themselves.
THE MOST WIDESPREAD CARNIVORE ON EARTH
Indeed, the red fox has proved an adaptable animal – much like ourselves. She is an omnivore, as are we and can take her prey from animals as large as a goose to those as small as beetles or earthworms, also frequently eating wild fruit, especially in the Autumn. Studies in the former Soviet Union found that up to 300 animal and a few dozen plant species were known to be consumed by her11. Mice and rats are frequently on her menu and her ancestors are thought to have developed as specialist rodent hunters in Eurasia five million years ago but her kind is now the most widespread carnivore on Earth, with 46 recognised subspecies.
The fox has binocular vision which is particularly effective at night, excellent hearing over distance, including the ability to detect the squeaking of mice at about 100 metres (330 ft) and capable of locating sounds to within one degree at 700–3,000 Hz, though less accurately at higher frequencies12, compensated for by an ability to hear at very low frequencies, including a rustle in grass or leaves and the burrowing of rodents underground. It has evolved many tactics for hunting, including tracking, ambush, stalking, leaping, pouncing and digging.
The fox can also run at a speed of 42 km/ hour, climb some trees, leap high and swim well. Considering the latter, its absence from many islands near to mainlands may come as a surprise but I think that is easy to explain through eradication by human agency.
The red fox is to be found everywhere in Europe (where she is thought to have reached 400,000 years ago) and in North America, Canada, China, Japan and Indochina. Sadly, in the mid-19th Century her species was introduced to Australia by European settlers (at first for sport and later perhaps to control the rabbit, also introduced there by Europeans), where a population of 7.2 million red foxes now is wreaking damage among rarer indigenous wildlife and is considered responsible for the extinction of a number of species. It is classified as the most harmful invasive species in Australia and eradication and population control measures are adopted against it there, as are also against feral domestic cats and dogs, also imported by Europeans.
The dingo is regarded as a controlling agent on red fox population growth in Australia though not totally effective due to the fox’s habit of burrowing; this is interesting for a number of reasons: firstly, the dingo (Canis lupus dingo) is itself a wild dog most likely imported from Asia by Aborigine settlers somewhere between 4,500 and 10,000 years ago and secondly, the red fox in Ireland and Britain does not tend to excavate its own burrows but rather to enlarge existing ones and then generally only for mating and rearing cubs. The Red Foxiscurrently absent from Iceland, Greenland, South America and sub-Saharan Africa.
The fox has been hunted by humans primarily for its fur, especially in winter when it is thicker and from foxes in the far north its silkiness is considered very valuable.
Reynard (one of the names traditionally given to the fox) has also been hunted for sport, usually by the aristocracy or country gentry, on horseback with hounds, an activity which gave rise to one of Oscar Wilde’s many memorable phrases: “The English country gentleman galloping after a fox – the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.” Of course, it was not only the English who did this but also the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy (from which Wilde’s father himself came) and the upwardly-climbing Irish who aped them, ag sodar i ndiaidh na nuaisle.13There have been numerous attempts to get fox-hunting banned and direct action such as protests and sabotage of hunts but it is still legal in Ireland and in Britain, though substantially reduced from a century ago.
Gamekeepers have also hunted the foxin order to keep it from killing ground-nesting birds such as wild pheasants, grouse and partridge, so that the landowner and his friends could shoot these birds down later14. Finally, the farmer has taken his toll, sending specially-bred dogs such as cairn terriers down earths to kill a hiding fox and in particular the cubs. The farmer wishes to protect his poultry but avoid the cost of building secure pens and so hunts foxes down; he could let his dogs roam his poultry area which would keep foxes away but dogs do often go chasing sheep too, which will also represent a loss to the farmer, either because the sheep are his or because his neighbours will claim compensation from him.
AN MAIDRÍN RUA and tradition
In Ireland, the fox was known as Sionnach, Madagh Rua (“red dog”) or Maidrín Rua (“little red dog”) and has given its name to a number of places, eg Cnoc an tSionnaigh (Fox Hill, Co. Mayo; another as a street name in Co. Laois); Oileán an tSionnaigh (Fox Island, Co. Galway); Carraig an tSionnaigh (Foxrock, Co. Dublin); possibly Léim an Mhadaigh, (Limavady, Co. Derry) and Lag an Mhadaigh (Legamaddy, Co. Down); possibly Ráth Sionnaigh (Rashenny, Co. Donegal), etc.15
Fox is also a family name and the Irish language version of it is Mac an tSionnaigh (literally “Fox’s son”). The Maidrín Rua or Sionnach features in a number of songs in Irish and in English and here is one from the Irish language tradition of song but in a non-traditional choral arrangement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bJyqbPxTwU.
Widely represented in folklore from China to Ireland, the fox is also mentioned in the Old Testament Bible and in Greek stories such as the fables of Aesop as well as among the Indigenous people of the Northern Americas. He is never stupid but his intelligence or cunning is also often portrayed as devious, tricky and even malicious. On the other hand, let us not forget that the anti-feudal Mexican hero created by USA writer Johnston McCulley(February 2, 1883 – November 23, 1958), who fights for the downtrodden and indigenous people and mocks the Mexican aristocracy and large landowners, always escaping them, used the nom-de-guerre of “El Zorro”, the fox.
There is a sexual connection too in the representation for the fox: for example in English a “foxy lady” is one with a high level of sexual attraction and in Castillian (Spanish) a “zorra” (vixen) isa pejorative term for a woman trading in sexual favours or “of low morals”16. Have we come around in a circle to where we began, to the vixen’s scream? I think so, but loaded now with a patriarchal outlook. Men can openly want and enjoy sex, of course, that is natural – but a woman? Surely not … or, if she does, she must be bad!
6Other feature which makes this claim suspect are a number of scare items in the article: a) the sensationalist reference to the alleged danger to a baby from a fox in a bedroom and a link to the article reporting this event. Such an event, supposing it occurred, must be on a level of likelihood way below the danger to babies from, for example, pet cats and dogs. Also b) the reference to the danger of contracting roundworm (Toxocara canis), which can cause toxocariasis in children, while not however mentioning how low that risk is and that infection for children is most likely to be encountered from dogs and cats.
9Dave Wall B.A. is a postgraduate researcher in zoology at UCD. He has studied otters, marine mammals and Alpine badgers as well as studying Dublin’s urban foxes for the past few years. He is a Director of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group.
13“Trotting after the nobles”, a derogatory phrase in Irish.
14Gamekeepers in Ireland and Britain also shot, poisoned or trapped badgers, otters, pine martens, stoats, escaped mink, eagles, hawks, buzzards, crows and magpies and often hung their carcasses in near their lodges to display their diligence in their tasks
The inhabitants of this land have fought invaders for at least a thousand years, some successfully and some less so. Many of the invaders were assimilated. Throughout this time, other invaders have quietly entered and spread throughout the land, mostly without encountering any organised opposition.
Last month and perhaps occasionally since, your nose might have picked up a scent drifting towards you, particularly as evening drew near but also at other times. The aroma I speak of is one of those scents that is difficult to describe and that actually seems to change from time to time and also according to whether one is right beside it or farther away. Sometimes it seems musky and very pleasant while at other times is not so welcome.
The scent may have been from the blossoms of the Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerus), a dense thicket-forming shrub that grows to small tree size with a strong thick trunk covered in a smooth dark grey bark. It is neither a cherry variant nor a laurel (or bay), which its leaves supposedly resemble, these being thick and dark green but poisonous (containing cyanide). The blossoms, white flowers clustered on upright spikes, produce blackish fruit in the Autumn about the size of cherries which are also poisonous to humans. Originally from South-West Asia, it was introduced into Irish gardens as a shrub or hedge plant (uses to which it is still put) but it has “escaped” and established itself in the wild.
The Cherry Laurel has become very successful and a resultant problem for bio-diversity in Ireland. A quick perusal of the on-line references do not reveal the reason for its success; it tends to be grouped alongside another invasive species, the Rhododendron, which deposits a chemical in the ground surrounding it, thereby preventing other plant species competing with it for light, moisture and nutrients. Like the Cherry Laurel, the Rhododendron is a plant species invasive to Ireland. Of course, since Ireland was almost entirely covered in ice 20,000 years ago, nearly all of the plant life now naturalised on our island had to have been invasive species originally — including trees, bushes, flowers, grasses, ferns …
Invasive species are not always harmful to the existing balance (or to humans) but clearly they have to have some means of competing with the existing flora (plant life) or they would have been unable to establish themselves. They may have better protection against herbivorous animals (undoubtedly the Cherry Laurel has at least that), or against insect or snail attack, or even against fungi (such as the ‘blight’ that attacked the potato a number of times in Ireland in the 1840s). Or they may be able to occupy a niche not well exploited so far, as one of the Buddleida species has done (literally, one might say), growing out of thin gaps in stone or brick walls or on waste ground, its racemes of mauve or purple flowers attracting butterflies and other insects for pollination and later scattering its seeds on the wind.
The Luftwaffe helped the spread of the plant in Britain; so common did this shrub become on waste ground after the Second World War that it earned the popular name of « Bombsite Plant ». The species in question is Buddleia Davidii and according to The Online Atlas of British and Irish Flora, it was introduced into cultivation in the 1890s, quickly becoming very popular in gardens. By 1922 it was known to be naturalised in the wild in Merioneth and in Middlesex by 1927; it is shown as locally well established in S. England in the 1962 Atlas and “In recent decades it has spread rapidly throughout lowland Britain and, to a lesser extent, Ireland.” It is certainly ubiquitous in Dublin city and surrounds.
Buddleia (pronounced “budd-lee-ah) has about 100 species native to all continents except Europe and Australasia but a number of species and cross-breds are cultivated in European gardens, including the escapologist davidii. Although nearly all are shrubs growing to at most 5m (16ft) tall, a few species qualify as trees, the largest reaching 30m (98ft). There are both evergreen and deciduous species, not that unusual among trees and shrubs, as appropriate in tropical and temperate regions respectively. Some of the South American species have evolved long red flowers to attract hummingbirds, rather than insects, as exclusive pollinators.
In Ireland, far from hummingbirds, davidii’s racemes of tiny purple or mauve flowers are a welcome sight as they flower in July, less so as the flowers, having done their work, die and turn brown (though repeated dead-heading can extend flowering until September). The flowers are scented but less so than those of the similar but not closely-related Common Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) which, incidentally, is an aggressive coloniser in parts of Southern Europe and of the USA. The roots of davidii will do some damage to house walls and chimney stacks if allowed to become established, when pulling them out becomes impossible and the stump would need treating with an appropriate chemical. Checked early, it is easily controllable.
Another successful wall climber in Ireland is the Red Valerian (Centranthus ruber), sometimes known as Jupiter’s Beard. Despite its common name, the flowers are often pink or even white and at times clumps of two or even all three colours may be seen growing alongside one another. This one likes the tops of walls rather than the sides and grows well on dry or stony soil too.
Its seeds are wind-driven too and from anecdotal evidence, it made particular use of the railway cuttings and lines to distribute itself throughout Ireland.
Despite its name, it is not closely related to the true Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), and no medicinal properties have been discovered in Centranthus. The leaves and the root may be eaten but there seems to be no great lobby recommending it as food. Its scent is rather rank to the human nose.
Originally from S.W. Europe and the Mediterranean region, the plant was grown in Britain as early as 1597, according to Online Atlas of British & Irish Flora. Like some cases in human history, when the newcomers were first invited and then became invaders, Red Valerian was first imported to be grown in gardens. By 1763 it was recorded in the wild in Cambridgeshire. Now it is to be found all over Ireland and is generally welcomed. Like some of the invading Vikings, Normans and English, Red Valerian and Buddleja have become part of the Ireland we know today and there seems no need to organise a resistance to them; the Cherry Laurel and the Rhododendron, despite the scent of one and the colour of the other, are a different case altogether.